From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
In its ceaseless search for new ways to excite, outrage and sell popcorn, Hollywood has lately found a new wrinkle on the old Pillow Talk percale. Two decades after Doris Day first said no, the burning question is no longer will-she-or-won't-she but how-old-is-she? Brooke Shields, who already stirred a succès de scandale as a 12-year-old prostitute in Pretty Baby, will be back (and pregnant) this summer in a steamy remake of Jean Simmons' pubescent awakening, The Blue Lagoon. Jodie Foster, 17, is raising eyebrows in Foxes, an account of teenage girls hopped up on drugs and sex. But neither of them can match Kristy McNichol, who has already faced more onscreen chastity crises in her 17 years than Day did through much of her career.

It began 17 months ago on her ABC series, Family, when Kristy fought off the scripted advances of guest star Leif Garrett. Then she encountered new boy-girl tensions in such strong TV movies as Like Mom, Like Me and The Summer of My German Soldier. But now, in the unfettered '80s, Kristy has forever left behind her image as Family's tomboyish Buddy. In Little Darlings Kristy plays a street-savvy kid who pals with patrician Tatum O'Neal, 16, at summer camp. There, as the movie's ad campaign leeringly puts it, "The bet is on: Whoever loses her virginity first—wins."

That theme is enough to guarantee the first "R" rating for an actress whose dying Family series was once one of the most intelligent and credible on the tube. Actually, Little Darlings is relatively tasteful, tepid and hardly justifies the lurid ad campaign.

The coming-of-age drama that most grips Kristy now is her own. As an actress on the way up, she will arrive at the April 14 Oscar ceremony—"limo and the whole shot." She has herself already won two Emmys and the admiration of co-stars like Burt (The End) Reynolds as perhaps the most gifted young actress in town. A woman who ought to know, Jane Fonda, calls McNichol "brilliant."

As for the future, Kristy is now in the third year of a CBS movie deal stretching to 1982, including an upcoming Easter special on the network with her 18-year-old brother, Jimmy. Her Hollywood breakthrough could come starring as Christina Crawford in the adaptation of Mommie Dearest, and even if someone else gets the part, don't feel sorry for McNichol. She is easily raking in $1 million a year.

Though she has the income of an adult and then some, there is still enough of a kid in Kristy that a favorite dish is pepperoni pizza, and sex can be "ick." As for her own sexual experience, Kristy blurts, unblushingly but ambiguously: "Grand slam, baby!" More seriously, she confides, "I think sex is great if it's not exploited in a bad way. There is such a beautiful part of sex. I like to kiss. They say Virgos are not sensual or sexy. I feel sexy inside me. I just don't show it. Sometimes," Kristy sums up, "I feel stupid and young, a little kid. Then there's times when I'm feeling real adultish."

Indeed, despite the tough persona that Kristy is now displaying, there is something touchingly teenage about her major concerns: independence, friends, clothes and boys, in about that order. "I can't wait until I'm 18," she declares, and thus September 11 is "going to be the happiest day of my life." Her dream present is two plane tickets to London (the other for a girlfriend). "I want to stay in the best hotel, the best suite, with no problems. I'm going to take a lot of money, and I want to blow it on clothes, on everything." She hasn't exactly denied herself the glad rags of late. She and Carollyn, her mom, recently spent $2,000 during one shopping foray at Saks. (Kristy, 5'3", 103 lbs., is a perfect size 3.)

A single parent long divorced from her carpenter husband, Carollyn, 37, broke the kids into commercials and then acting (a third McNichol, Tommy, 15, lives with his maternal grandmother in Burbank and displays no interest in showbiz). So she is now dealing for the first time with a maturing daughter. "We don't seem to agree on a lot of things," Carollyn concedes. Testifies Kristy: "There are little, stupid, petty pressures like, 'Who you going out with? When you going to be home?' Mom lets me do what I want now, but she knows when I'm lying. It's weird. It's like she can look right through me."

So one major rite of passage is at hand. On April 14, before the Oscars, Kristy and her best friend, Ina Liberace (niece of same), will move into what McNichol calls "our dreamhouse." It is a $250,000 four-bedroom Cape Cod near "West Hollywood and all the good shops," says Kristy, who bought it four years ago. They have arranged for Kristy's father, Jim, to renovate the kitchen. Ina's mother will supervise the wallpapering of the house, just as she did for her pianist brother-in-law. "We're gonna have a bet on who's a better cook, have our friends over and judge us," says Kristy, who met Ina at a Westwood disco a year and a half ago and became pals. "A true friend of mine is someone who doesn't just want to be with the 'high life of Hollywood,' which is somewhat phony anyway," says Kristy. "I don't ever want anyone phony in my life. Ever." That night Kristy will attend the Oscars not with a beau but with her future housemate, Ina.

Most of Kristy's cronies now are part of her support system—Ina does her makeup, Joey Corsaro her hair, Tony Abbattista the clothes design. Mostly, Kristy admits, her friends are "older, because they know what's cooking, what they want in life—they're more like me." According to her mother, though, "Kristy is immature in some respects because she never had the opportunity to grow up with kids her own age. She missed the relationship of a bunch of girls hanging around together, and that's kind of sad. That's why I wanted her to work on Little Darlings with kids her own age."

When Tatum arrived on the set, recalls Kristy, "I thought, 'Uh oh, I'm gonna meet someone who I have not heard good things about.' But she's so nice. Everyone has their moods—I do too—but most of the time we got along all right." Only occasionally did they get into one-upmanship ("I'm not on a head trip," asserts Kristy). When McNichol was directing an off-hours cast variety show, O'Neal couldn't participate, but later backed Kristy up when the other kids complained that she was a slave driver. "She's a perfectionist," explains Tatum. But Kristy still bursts out defensively, "You know, Tatum thinks I'm square, but I'm not. I just don't like to do the same things she does."

The movie's crew, as it happened, preferred Tatum's quiet but polite reserve to Kristy's more impatient and sometimes disdainful moods. In one moment of boredom, Kristy gunned her car into nearby Madison, Ga. and, jumping the curb, tore a large "donut" into the grass on the town green. Confronted by angry police, the embarrassed production company later apologized (as did Kristy personally). "I'm just relieved that if my daughter has to be a rebel, she's ruining grass instead of taking drugs," says Carollyn.

Kristy has succumbed to some of the lures of her age and stardom. She learned to smoke for Little Darlings (Tatum helped). Kristy still hasn't received her high school equivalency degree from her on-set tutors (it's due in June), and unlike, say, Jodie Foster (who's applied to Ivy League schools for this fall), Kristy has no interest in higher education.

Her mother has been occupied of late with her new German beau, Zig-fried Lucas, 27, but continues to run Kristy's career and choose her parts. (As befits her TV recognition, Kristy had first choice over Tatum for Little Darlings leads and deliberately chose the troublemaker role.) She is currently shooting Blinded by the Light, a CBS movie with brother Jimmy about two kids caught up in a religious cult, and carefully mulling over other film offers. "I don't ever want to have a flop or be a flop," she says fiercely.

Kristy eyes the poster of John Travolta still on the wall of her bedroom in her mother's Tarzana house (most of her stuff is boxed and ready for the move) and reflects, "He's not really down now." Then she regresses to a previous idol. "Just because I loved Donny Osmond before is not why I'm saying this, but he has the prettiest brown eyes I have ever seen." She looks despairingly in the mirror at her own face, with its soupcon of mascara, blush and lip gloss. "I think my nose is fat," she decides. "It kind of sticks out farther than it should. I think my lips are too fat too. I wish I had them a little thinner. I want curly, crazy hair. I have straight. You always want something you don't have," she sighs. But, if nothing else, time will inevitably grant Kristy McNichol her fondest wish: She'll be grown up.